As health officials search for the missing link between vaping and a mysterious illness, California’s cannabis community is blaming untested products and devices sold to unsuspecting consumers on the state’s sprawling black market.
It’s still unclear what is causing the lung damage that has hospitalized 805 people and killed 18. But most of the cases have been traced back to illicit products, health officials say. In a cluster of 12 cases treated in the Central Valley’s rural Kings County, where cannabis is illegal, every patient vaped using cannabis or cannabis oil devices bought from an illicit “pop up” shop.
The legalization of cannabis sales in 2018 was intended to bring safety and oversight to California’s marijuana business, imposing strict rules on licensed producers.
Yet untested cannabis and devices continue to be sold, with illicit dealers marketing their adulterated and counterfeit wares through the internet, delivery services or pop-up unlicensed dispensaries.
The illnesses and deaths have triggered a major public health scare across the country. California’s Department of Public Health reports 108 hospitalizations and two deaths, one in Los Angeles County and one in Tulare County.
This week, a study of lung tissue samples found that the injuries look like chemical burns or toxic chemical exposure.
California health officials are urging consumers to stop vaping of any kind until investigators determine why hundreds of people nationwide have been sickened after using the devices. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File) Richard Vogel/Associated Press
What’s the culprit – the product, the device being used, or something else?
The outbreak is shining a bright light on California’s dark cannabis underworld, estimated to be worth $9 billion. And much of the state’s illegal product is exported, perhaps contributing to the illnesses that are sweeping the nation. Los Angeles was reportedly the source of dozens of jars of THC, worth $300,000, now at the center of a bust of a massive Wisconsin illegal vaping operation.
“The concern is: What’s going on in the unregulated supply chain?” said biochemist Jeffrey Raber, director of the Association of Commercial Cannabis Labs. “It seems like something new, not seen in the regulated market.”
While Los Angeles’ gritty five-block “Cannabis District” has gained notoriety, illegal sales are also plentiful in Oakland, Berkeley and other parts of the Bay Area, insiders say. In the rural Central Valley cluster of a dozen cases, six occured in Kings County and the other six occured in surrounding counties.
“There are 15 regulated dispensaries within a 10-minute drive of me in Santa Cruz,” said Kaiya Bercow, co-founder and director of operations at the licensed company Utopia Cannabis.
“Along that same drive,” he said, “I can find someone selling illegal product for half the price.”
That’s why this investigation is tough. While legal products are tested and monitored by the state’s “track and trace” program, which can hunt down a problem to its source, that’s impossible with illicit products.
“This is a perfect example of why the regulated cannabis market has so many advantages over the unregulated market,” said Josh Wurzer, president and co-founder of SC Laboratories, a Santa Cruz-based analytical laboratory, which tests legal cannabis for 62 pesticides and several dozen solvents, molds and other contaminants.
The outbreak has alarmed many users of vaporizing cigarettes and devices, which are popular because they’re presumed to be much healthier than products that burn. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 3.7 percent of American adults used electronic cigarettes or vapor products on a regular basis, representing more than 9 million consumers.
These devices don’t rely on cancer-causing combustion. Instead, they use heat to convert a liquid to a vapor, or mist, which is inhaled.
While the net benefit of vaporizing has not yet been reviewed by federal authorities — and much more research is needed, say scientists, clinicians and consumers – the devices have been used largely without incident for years.
What’s so mysterious is the sudden emergence of acute health problems over the past six months.
There are several leading theories of what’s gone wrong, said industry veteran Debby Goldsberry of Oakland’s licensed Magnolia dispensary, which sells only regulated products.
The coils of faulty equipment may be releasing volatile chemicals when heated, she said. It’s known, for instance, that the inhalation of certain toxic metals can cause “metal fume fever” and respiratory distress among welders, she said.
It is also possible that the cannabis oil is tainted by pesticides from illegally grown plants, said Bercow of Utopia Cannabis. Pesticides are concentrated during the distillation process.
Or perhaps the cannabis oil is being “cut” with toxic agents to stretch supply — and profits. Insiders say the marketing of cutting agents suddenly increased last spring.
While it’s legal for licensed producers to add natural chemicals called terpenes to improve smell or taste, illicit producers are adding unapproved substances that look like cannabis oil, but cost less.
Using Craigslist, the Santa Cruz-based SC Labs bought a product sold by Santa Monica’s Honey Cut Labs — and found it to contain synthetic vitamin E acetate, a popular new cutting agent that is known to sicken lungs. New York State has issued subpoenas to Honey Cut Labs and two other companies that market and sell vitamin E acetate online.
“The black market is looking to cut corners and save a buck,” said Ben Disinger of the Portland company True Terpenes. “These substances are not found naturally. Getting them sucked into your lungs can cause pneumonia.”
Yet, illnesses have also been seen in cases where there is no vitamin E acetate.
“This leads me to believe it is not the cause, but just one of many substances thrown together that under the right circumstances — other chemicals, heat, heavy metals from the cartridge itself to act as a catalyst — create a byproduct that causes damage to the lungs, of differing severity,” said Reggie Gaudino, a consultant with Berkeley’s testing company Steep Hill Labs Inc. “Why did some heavy users not die, but some did? Was it the combination of chemicals?”
Consumers may be unaware that the product they’re buying is not a real brand name, mainly due to a recent proliferation of counterfeit labels and empty vape cartridges produced by manufacturers in China and sold on Alibaba and other e-commerce sites, say insiders. These cartridges are injected with California’s illicit and untested cannabis oils, then sold as pre-filled products.
Like a fake Gucci bag, these cheap products look legitimate, but they’re far more dangerous.
On Thursday, a Craiglist ad from San Francisco’s downtown Civic Center offered a knock-off “Cookies” vape cartridge containing a full gram of cannabis oil for $60. By comparison, only half as much — 0.5 gram — of Utopia’s tested and clean cannabis oil cost $50, before taxes.
“Unless you test the unregulated producers or shut down the unlicensed dispensaries, you have no way to really address this issue, except by people dying and others freaking out,” said Gaudino. “Kind of like what’s going on now.”